The Bush administration is now under fire daily for the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also faces criticism for its failings in preparing for and reacting to the tragedy of Sept. 11. Consequently it has adopted a tried-and-true ploy of muddying the waters to deflect negative press: Blame Iran for everything.
On Saturday, President Bush stated that although the CIA had found "no direct connection between Iran and the attacks of Sept. 11," nevertheless "we will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved."
But why? Although the 9/11 commission found some connections between Iran and Al Qaeda and determined that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers may have been allowed to travel through Iran, it did not find any evidence that Iranian officials collaborated on the Sept. 11 plot. The accusations against Iran are a diversion, and they do not stop with Sept. 11. Resident analysts at the neoconservative, right-wing American Enterprise Institute and other similar bodies have tried to blame Iran for the faulty intelligence presented by the Bush administration to justify the Iraq war. The scenario is this: Iran wanted the United States to remove its old enemy, Saddam Hussein. Iranian intelligence therefore worked through the Defense Department's now-discredited leader-in-waiting, Ahmad Chalabi, to provide false information to U.S. officials about weapons of mass destruction.
Iran has also been accused of supporting Iraqi cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Al Mahdi militia in their opposition to the U.S. occupation. The accusation came from neoconservative pundit Michael Rubin, who until recently was an advisor to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. Rubin has laid out to the Department of Defense and to the public in the National Review Online a baroque set of connections between Iran and Sadr tenuously based on family and personal relations. Predictably, the headlines that followed were versions of "Iran supports Sadr rebellion!"
Such "guilt by accusation" constitutes a long-standing practice of administration officials and their think-tank surrogates. Because Iran already has been demonized in the public mind, the administration hopes that any accusation against it will be treated as fact. And the notion is likely to be cemented by repetition. The president's announcement that Iran should be investigated will no doubt be followed by administration spokespeople casually mentioning in interviews and news conferences that Iran seems to have been involved in killing Americans on Sept. 11.
At one time it seemed that the administration was trumping up charges against Iran in advance of a military action against it. Now it is clear that any idea of military action has been put aside as impractical, as indeed it is. This new round of Iran-bashing is not a prelude to another invasion of a Persian Gulf country but rather a political ploy in an election year. The accusations, it seems clear, could help rouse the American electorate and provide another demonstration of Bush's resolve to resist evil in the world. They certainly have no effect on Iran, except to increase that country's hostility toward the United States.
The administration may not be able to keep this game up indefinitely. The Council on Foreign Relations issued a sober, thorough report on Tuesday, titled "Iran: Time for a New Approach," that calls the tension between the United States and Iran into question. The report recognizes Iran as a "critical actor in the postwar evolution" of Afghanistan and Iraq, and as an "indispensable player in the world economy." It asserts that the U.S. and Iran have significant mutual interests that must be dealt with on a regular basis. And it advocates abandonment of the policy of estrangement and recommends "limited or selective engagement with the current Iranian government."
The co-chairmen of the report are Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to President Carter, and Robert M. Gates, former director of the CIA. Neither of these men could be construed as doves or pro-Iranian sympathizers.
It would be irresponsible of Bush to ignore this report, but it will be difficult for him to implement its recommendation of engagement while he and his supporters keep attacking the Islamic Republic of Iran with little justification. Let us hope that the Council on Foreign Relations report will be the occasion for the White House to work toward developing a helpful and productive relationship with Iran. The world will be better for it.
William O. Beeman is professor of anthropology and director of Middle East studies at Brown University. He is author of the forthcoming "Double Demons: Cultural Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Understanding."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times